Historian Tom Holland on How the Gospel Changed Everything. Part 2: Religion and Politics
This is Part Two of Stream Senior Editor John Zmirak’s interview with historian Tom Holland about his new book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. You can read Part One here.
ZMIRAK: One common view of Church history is that the conversion of Constantine somehow corrupted Christianity. It certainly ended the resistance some Christians had had to serving in the military or government. Did entering the mainstream compromise Christianity’s prophetic witness? Or is the truth more complicated than that?
HOLLAND: There is a tension inherent within Christianity. On the one hand, it aspires to offer redemption to all of humanity, to convert every last human soul, to spread the Gospel to the very limits of the earth. On the other, it has its symbol an instrument of torture used by a would-be global empire to break those who opposed its authority. As such, Christians had always felt profoundly ambivalent about the prospects for Christianity’s earthly dominion. This is nothing new. The great work of theology which serves Latin Christendom as its foundation stone, Augustine’s City Of God, revolves around precisely such a tension. The City of Man is not, and cannot be, the City of God.
Conversion, Reform, Revolution
To make such a vast project possible, you work episodically. Your book offers crucial incidents in the history of Christianity and the West. Moments when “reformers” subjected the status quo in Church and state to harsh scrutiny, and called the world to hew to a more authentically Christian standard.
So you highlight the parallels between Pope Gregory VII, papal reformer, and Martin Luther — who argued that Gregory marked the apostasy of the Church. You show how Voltaire, for all his anti-clericalism, was moved by Christian morals. You point up how an obscure, handicapped, four-foot Quaker helped launch the Abolitionist movement. Can you explain what you mean by “reform” here?
“Reformatio” is a Latin word meaning “remaking.” It comes in the 11th century to express a conviction that sets Western Christendom, and therefore the West itself, on a radically novel and distinctive path. Revolutionaries come to hold that not just individual Christians but the whole of society can be born again. This entails the overturning of ancient customs, the humbling of kings, and bringing a people lost to darkness into light. It establishes a paradigm that repeatedly, over a millennium of Western history, has brought Christian society to reinvent itself – and even, from the time of the Enlightenment onwards, to reject Christianity itself.
Is the Culture War a Christian Civil War?
Toward the book’s end, you explain how both sides in what we Americans call the “culture war” are following different strands of the Christian moral, prophetic tradition. That came up in your TV debate with celebrated atheist A.C. Grayling.
In that debate, you argued that the whole concept of a homosexual “orientation” is the result of Christian influence on how we view sexual relationships. Can you speak a bit about that?
Writing to the Christians of Rome, St Paul identified as the surest and most terrifying measure of humanity’s alienation from God’s love the sexual depravity of gentile society. One aspect of it more than any other had caused him horror. “Men committed indecent acts with other men.”
Here, in Paul’s formulation, was a perspective on sexual relations that Roman men would barely have recognized. The key to their erotic sense of themselves was not the gender of the people they slept with. It was whether, in the course of their relations, they took the active or the passive role. Deviancy, to the Romans, was pre-eminently a male allowing himself to be used as though he were a female.
Paul, by condemning the master who casually spent himself inside a slave boy no less than the man who offered himself up to penetration, had imposed on the patterns of Roman sexuality a thoroughly alien paradigm. It was one derived, in large part, from his upbringing as a Jew. Paul, after all, had been steeped in the Torah. Twice the Law of Moses prohibited the lying of men with other men “as one lies with a woman.”
Paul, though, in his letter to Rome’s Christians, had given this prohibition a novel twist. Among the gentiles, he warned, it was not only men who committed indecent acts with others of their own sex. “Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones.” 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 behavior.
The consequence was yet another ramping up of the revolution brought by Christianity to the dimension of the erotic. The concept of paganism would never have come into existence without the furious condemnation of it by the Church. Just so, the notion that men and women who slept with people of the same sex were sharing in the same sin, which obscenely parodied the natural order of marriage, was a purely Christian one. Its originality was manifest, in the early centuries of the Church, by the struggle to find a word for it.
Gradually, though, over the course of the centuries, it had come to be identified with the sin that brought down fire and brimstone on Sodom. ‘Sodomy’ had long been used to refer to any form of sexual act that could not result in procreation. But Thomas Aquinas had given it an altogether more precise definition. “Copulation with a member of the same sex, male with male, or female with female, as stated by the Apostle – this is called the vice of sodomy.”
Nevertheless, even into the 19th century, the word remained a slippery one. It took a Catholic psychologist named Richard von Krafft-Ebing finally to supply a word – a combination of Greek and Latin – that would define what for so long had been inchoate. ‘Homosexualität’ had originally been coined in 1869. It served the writer of a pamphlet on Prussian morality laws as shorthand for sexual relations between people of the same gender. Krafft-Ebing promoting the word, came to arrive at a paradoxical conclusion. The sexual practice condemned by the Church as ‘sodomy’ was perfectly compatible (for him) with the ideal that he saw as Christianity’s great contribution to civilization: lifelong monogamy. Homosexuality, as defined by the first scientist ever to attempt a detailed categorization of it, constituted the seamless union of Christian sin with Christian love.
Well, of course, orthodox Christians don’t agree with Krafft-Ebing there.
We’ll conclude this interview next time, with a look in Part III at how “Woke” culture is a variant/parody of Christian ethics.
John Zmirak is a Senior Editor of The Stream, and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism.