Last week, I mentioned Sherry Weddell’s contention that Catholics need to face the fact that we live in Missiondom, not Christendom, and that we need to stop the vain efforts to cling to Christendom through the imposition of law, force, and fear that is the entire project of both Reactionary Catholicism and MAGA antichrist religion.
Both are an attempt at salvation through the one thing that the entire New Testament unanimously declares cannot possibly save: the Law. It is a testament (pardon the pun) to the failure of these pseudo-Christian ideologies (a synonym for “heresies”) that they have completely abandoned faith in the grace and love of God (which Marjorie Taylor Greene and Michael Voris describe as “satanic”).
Because these ideologies are focused entirely on the vain project of recreating a dead (and always partly phantasmal) vision of “western civilization” and not on the gospel of Jesus Christ, they have paradoxically become the gravest enemies of the actual real Church as it actually and really exists in the real world. They hate the Pope. They hate nearly all the members of the Church. They hate the virtues of mercy, generosity, hope, and charity she preaches. They hate repentance (which they deride as “woke”.) They hate the idea of a duty to the poor. They hate the idea of the forgiveness of debts (which underlies both the Old Testament Jubilee and the forgiveness of sins). They hate the idea of being responsible for the care of creation. They hate having to consider the needs of the vulnerable in a Pandemic (or any other time). They lionize the use of violence (see St. Kyle Rittenhouse). They hunger to kill victims on death row so fiercely that they do not mind slaughtering innocents to do it. Some of their more insane representatives still ask “What’s so bad about killing heretics?”
They lionize Mammon. They lionize self-pity while denouncing their victims as “controlled by fear” and “manipulating with guilt”. They are ordered toward the preservation of what the actual Church calls “structures of sin”.
Indeed, the great paradox of our time is that the biggest enemies of the Faith, the most conscious and bitter haters of the Pope and the Magisterium (which is, after all, still the God-ordained teaching authority of the Church to whom Christ said, “He who listens to you listens to me and he who listens to me listens to him who sent me” (Luke 10:16)) are not atheists or the hated liberals supposedly at war with the Faith. It is Reactionary Catholics. The allegedly “godless” are, to judge by what they do, often passionately on the side of what the Church herself calls for. That is precisely why the Pope is so often called a “socialist”, a “heretic”, a “communist” and the great enemy by the Greatest Catholics of All Time: because the reality is that the Church’s teaching on the dignity of the human person, the common good (denounced as “Marxism” when I quoted an slew of biblical, patristic, conciliar, and papal documents on the National Catholic Register years ago), subsidiarity, and and solidarity (also vehemently suspect of “liberalism”) has almost nothing in common with the madhouse that is MAGA antichrist religion. Virtually the only point of contact left is opposition to abortion. But for the MAGA “prolife” cult this has now become a heretical monomania whose chief function is not to defend the dignity of the unborn, but to to brandish them as human shields for all the sadistic cruelty they really care about.
The strange good news in this is that this means the gospel has many points of contact with lots of people who might be very surprised to discover how much of their worldview is deeply Christian. This is something Tom Holland, an atheist, has been telling fellow seculars in Britain and the rest of the English-speaking world for years and I think it is an obvious bridge Catholics interested in building bridge rather than defending fortresses should pay careful attention to. Holland wrote in 2016:
When I was a boy, my upbringing as a Christian was forever being weathered by the gale force of my enthusiasms. First, there were dinosaurs. I vividly remember my shock when, at Sunday school one day, I opened a children’s Bible and found an illustration on its first page of Adam and Eve with a brachiosaur. Six years old I may have been, but of one thing – to my regret – I was rock-solid certain: no human being had ever seen a sauropod. That the teacher seemed not to care about this error only compounded my sense of outrage and bewilderment. A faint shadow of doubt, for the first time, had been brought to darken my Christian faith.
With time, it darkened further still. My obsession with dinosaurs – glamorous, ferocious, extinct – evolved seamlessly into an obsession with ancient empires. When I read the Bible, the focus of my fascination was less the children of Israel or Jesus and his disciples than their adversaries: the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Romans. In a similar manner, although I vaguely continued to believe in God, I found Him infinitely less charismatic than my favourite Olympians: Apollo, Athena, Dionysus. Rather than lay down laws and condemn other deities as demons, they preferred to enjoy themselves. And if they were vain, selfish and cruel, that only served to endow them with the allure of rock stars.
By the time I came to read Edward Gibbon and the other great writers of the Enlightenment, I was more than ready to accept their interpretation of history: that the triumph of Christianity had ushered in an “age of superstition and credulity”, and that modernity was founded on the dusting down of long-forgotten classical values. My childhood instinct to think of the biblical God as the po-faced enemy of liberty and fun was rationalised. The defeat of paganism had ushered in the reign of Nobodaddy, and of all the crusaders, inquisitors and black-hatted puritans who had served as his acolytes. Colour and excitement had been drained from the world. “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean,” Swinburne wrote, echoing the apocryphal lament of Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome. “The world has grown grey from thy breath.” Instinctively, I agreed.
So, perhaps it was no surprise that I should have continued to cherish classical antiquity as the period that most stirred and inspired me. When I came to write my first work of history, Rubicon, I chose a subject that had been particularly close to the hearts of the philosophes: the age of Cicero. The theme of my second, Persian Fire, was one that even in the 21st century was serving Hollywood, as it had served Montaigne and Byron, as an archetype of the triumph of liberty over despotism: the Persian invasions of Greece.
The years I spent writing these studies of the classical world – living intimately in the company of Leonidas and of Julius Caesar, of the hoplites who had died at Thermopylae and of the legionaries who had triumphed at Alesia – only confirmed me in my fascination: for Sparta and Rome, even when subjected to the minutest historical inquiry, did not cease to seem possessed of the qualities of an apex predator. They continued to stalk my imaginings as they had always done – like a tyrannosaur.
Yet giant carnivores, however wondrous, are by their nature terrifying. The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable.
“Every sensible man,” Voltaire wrote, “every honourable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.” Rather than acknowledge that his ethical principles might owe anything to Christianity, he preferred to derive them from a range of other sources – not just classical literature, but Chinese philosophy and his own powers of reason. Yet Voltaire, in his concern for the weak and oppressed, was marked more enduringly by the stamp of biblical ethics than he cared to admit. His defiance of the Christian God, in a paradox that was certainly not unique to him, drew on motivations that were, in part at least, recognisably Christian.
“We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.
Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.
His book DOMINION does a bangup job of demonstrating that our culture (including so-called “godless” secular culture) remains absolutely saturated with Christian assumptions and ideals, not the least of which is the very concept of the “secular” which comes from nowhere and nothing else but Latin Catholic Europe). The very means by which the enemies of Christianity attack Christians stand almost entirely on Christian assumption. The rage nearly all its critics feel toward it (except, weirdly, its right wing nihilist enemies who often claim the Christian mantle) is rage at it for not living up to ideals, not at the ideals themselves. In short, we live in a strange time when many post-Christians wish not so much for Christians to stop talking about Jesus as for them to show them Jesus by their lives. Meanwhile, many of those claiming most loudly to be his greatest representatives spitefully reply “No!” because they want to “own the libs” and “make snowflakes cry”. That is the reply of people with no interest in the gospel and nothing but interest in earthly power.
This is why I think the fields are still white for harvest. Indeed, I do more than think it, I know it because in the 20th century, the gospel has seen enormous and unprecedented growth globally–growth that continues, particularly in Asia and the global south. The thing is, self-absorbed American Christians are oblivious to it (particularly self-absorbed Reactionary Catholics) and misread the signs of that growth (such as Amazonian Catholics seeking the sacraments) as “paganization” of the Church. Meanwhile, people like the Holy Father get that the Church is called to Missiondom, not to mere institutional maintenance. And since the Holy Spirit agrees with him, he is going to eventually be borne out while the Reactionary enemies of mission will someday be as forgotten as the Donatists.
Meanwhile, there remain many opportunities for Mission in the places that are historically Christian–if Christians are willing to make common cause with those who conservative bigots have taught them to see as their “liberal enemies” since most of what those alleged enemies seek comports deeply with what the Church teaches is justice. It is, ironically, only the Greatest Christians of All Time who appear to be at war with nearly all the gospel demands of us in their struggle to cling to raw nihilist power at all costs.
Here is my book report on Dominion:
1) I’ll start with the part I disliked most: Chapter 16, “Enlightenment”, where Holland builds his case that abolitionism was a fundamentally Christian movement. He keeps feeding us passages like this one: “[Benjamin Lay said], ‘Can it be expected that He will suffer this great iniquity to go unpunished?’ Such a question would have bewildered earlier generations of Christians.”
Indeed it would have bewildered them, because nothing in the Bible or 18 centuries of Christian tradition suggests anything wrong with slavery (as long as the slaves themselves aren’t Christians). The book of Leviticus gives lengthy and detailed instructions about how slaves are to be acquired and how they should be treated, but strangely fails to mention that slavery is fundamentally heinous. Paul told an escaped slave to go back to his former masters, when he could have just told him to go live his life and told those masters to let him go because it’s the only decent thing to do. Paul didn’t do that, and it’s revealing. The European trade in African slaves began with Papal endorsement, yet the name of the Pope who did this – Nicolas V – does not even appear in the book. Holland’s unwillingness to grapple with such obvious strikes against his argument makes it hard to take him seriously.
2) Nonetheless, there were some things I liked about the book. In Chapter 14, “Cosmos”, his description of Galileo’s trial is interesting, and basically accords with what I was taught in the History of Science classes I took back in the day. The Catholic Church in the 17th century was OK with heliocentrism as long as it was presented as theory rather than fact. And Galileo was willing to comply. The trouble came because Galileo was, not to put too fine a point on things, an asshole. He was constitutionally incapable of cultivating a patron. His scientific brilliance was such that he attracted a patron anyway, none other than Pope Urban VIII, but he quickly pissed him off and thus ended up before the Inquisition. All accurate as far as it goes.
But even this chapter has a major flaw: Holland tells us that the scientific enterprise itself is a function of Christianity. Discussing the Jesuit astronomers working in 17th century China he writes “He [the Chinese scholar Yang Guangxian] had identified the degree to which their ability to make sense of the heavens was rooted in assumptions that were thoroughly Christian.”
Please. The understanding that science advances when people follow evidence wherever it leads is something Christians inherited from the ancient Greeks. Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the Earth. The Pythagoreans made advances in geometry that were quickly adopted by architects and engineers. Later European scholars and scientists – all of whom happened to be Christians – saw that the Greek method worked, and adopted it. (The 17th century Chinese, for their part, were indeed scientifically inferior not only to Christians but also to Ottomans, because China at that time was culturally calcified and inward-looking.)
3) And one thing that I just found interesting: in Chapter 3, “Mission”, we read a full 20 pages about Paul’s teachings, compared to only a couple pages on Jesus’ teachings. I’ve heard historians of religion say that Christianity owes more to Paul than to Jesus. Clearly Holland agrees.
In summary, Dominion has some interesting parts, but also some glaring flaws. Holland could claim that Christianity is the water Westerners are swimming in, and I would totally grant him that point. But he goes farther, claiming that much of what is best about Western culture is *inherently* Christian, and fails to support that claim. Overall, I give the book a meh.
1. You seem to think Quakers are something other than Christian. The reality, of course, (as Holland makes clear) is that abolitionism was an epiphenomenon of the Christian tradition and nothing else. That’s why it arose where and when it did. Your leftover Protestantism wants to cling to proof-texting (ironically another holdover of the Christian tradition still at work in you) but the fact remains that abolitionism arose in British and American Protestantism and nowhere else (with the honorable exception of some late medieval Catholics like de las Casas and some Dominicans noodling the matter. Holland is not doing theology and is perfectly aware (indeed states clearly) that for the first 17 centuries of Christianity, most Christians saw slavery as we see war: a necessary evil. Gregory of Nyssa stands almost alone in declaring that it *cannot* be squared with the gospel. But when the rejection of slavery comes, it comes as an epiphenomenon of the Christian tradition. Because Holland’s entire point is that the series of explosions that dynamites first classical civilization, then western conception of Church and state, then the western Church, then much of theism, then the conception of the relationship of the person to the state all find their sources in the Christian tradition. Neitzsche ridicule the English flatheads for thinking the Christian moral tradition could outlive the Christian’s supernatural theology. Holland is suggesting that, so far, it has. (I am skeptical that it will in the long run, but that’s another story). I must say, you appear to be reading Holland the way W.C Fields read the Bible: “Looking for loopholes”.
2. Yeah, I’ve seen the desperation with which you fight the obvious fact that the sciences are legacy of Latin Europe. Still, they obviously are: http://tofspot.blogspot.com/2013/11/summa-origines-scientiarum-articulus-1.html
3. Holland is writing as a historian, not a theologian. Paul is our earliest source, not for information about Jesus (he is writing to people who already know and accept the apostolic traditions about Jesus) but for what Christian thought the implications of Jesus were for life, the universe, and everything. Since Holland’s task is to trace the sociological impact of the Christian tradition on the world, it makes perfect sense for him to focus on Paul, whom he describes as a “depth charge at the foundation of classical civilization”. Holland, as a historian, is interested in primary sources. Paul is the most primary source we have because he is writing in his own voice about himself and the Churches he knows, while the gospels are, by their nature “secondary sources” about what Jesus said and did. Holland is not interested in teaching faith in Jesus. He is interested in how that faith impacted the society in which the Church emerged.
As to your “meh”. It was fore-ordained, since it is obvious you approached the book with a zealous will to find fault, not hear his actual points. Ironically, much of your complaining only proves his point. Your complaints are rooted in deeply Christian assumptions.
“Your complaints are rooted in deeply Christian assumptions.”
My complaint is that when someone is trying to convince the public of a highly debatable thesis they should, at the very least, address the most obvious counterarguments against that thesis. Perhaps you could explain to me what is uniquely Christian about that complaint?
Christianity in this country, and the fascism it has deeply entwined itself with are rapidly becoming the central threat to the physical security and freedom of many of us. Some of us are having to do some serious if preliminary thinking about no-go zones in our own country and possible exit strategies.
This is no longer a few nuts under the stairs of the GOP. They run the joint, they have mastered the tools of tyranny by majority and they’re working steadily toward a vision of Gilead.