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“Humane” Values and Christianity

September 19, 2019

I’m deep into Tom Holland’s latest book in which he argues at length that values that for many in the West are simply those of any humane, civilized person in fact are shaped heavily by the influence of Christianity:  Dominion:  The Making of the Western Mind (London:  Little & Brown, 2019).  Holland gave the gist of his claim in an op-ed piece in the Spectator in April:  here.

I look forward to finishing the tome (of some 525 pp), but already at nearly the half-way point the line of his argument is fairly clear.  In the sort of developed pictures of various individuals and periods that is Holland’s trademark style, he shows that the values touted by most Westerners (especially intellectuals) have never been universal or intrinsic to societies.  In fact, values such as respect for all individuals regardless of their social standing, wealth, physical or mental health, sex or age are, in the sweep of history, rather odd, and comparatively recent.  They emerged and have developed largely over the past millennia, and in those societies/nations in which Christianity was a prominent cultural force.

One can quibble with various specifics of his discussion.  I for one am not satisfied with his characterization of the Apostle Paul (who in my view remained firmly a part of his ancestral people, and didn’t seek to abolish Torah-observance by fellow Jewish believers in Jesus, so long as it didn’t stand in the way of accepting non-Jews as full spiritual siblings).  And the book will annoy those who assume that their “human” values are simply what any educated person would affirm down the ages.  But it’s not that easily dismissed in my view.

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  1. Tom Hennell permalink

    Tom Holland’s argument (from your summary) seems to owe a lot to Larry Siedentop ‘Inventing the Individual: the origins of Western Liberalism’. Larry’s argument, in respect of Paul, is that Paul invents (or discovers in Jesus) the principle of the individual will. Jewish thought differed from Greek thought in seeing divine will as higher force, external to the nature of things. Larry sees Paul as taking that idea of distinct divine will; but saying that by being ‘in Christ’ that divine will becomes available to be acquired by all humans – male and female, slave and free, Jew and Greek; it ceases to be an external coercive force, and becomes potentially fused with each individual person, in a ‘coming of age’ or ‘new creation’ for all humanity.

    • No,Tom, I think you misunderstand Holland’s argument. It has nothing to do with the sort of odd notion that you cite. Instead, Holland argues that human values such as attending to the weak and vulnerable have been spurred by Christianity.

      • Sean Matthew permalink


        I would like to note that Professor Siedentop also does not advocate what the previous poster says in his very interesting study on the origins of liberal individualism and Christian contributions to liberal thought.

        I think Tom has misrepresented both arguments.

    • Sean Matthew permalink


      Professor Siedentop’s argument is that in classical thought there was little sense of equality of status among all members of society and the individual was largely subsumed within clan/patriarchal family structures.

      The Roman paterfamilias, he contends, was not only the symbolic head of the family but its ruler, exercising control over younger male and female members. They harboured no mature understanding of the individual agent distinct from the family or the city.

      This was challenged, so Siedentop argues, by the Christian revelation diffused by St Paul, for whom neither slave nor free, Greek nor Jew was of distinct status in the eyes of God.

      In this respect, he emphasises Christian contributions to ideas of equality and human agency, particularly focusing upon the 11th-12th century canonists (i.e. Gratian) and later theologians such as Ockham, and their novel advocacy of the new idea of subjective, natural rights.

      • Tom Hennell permalink

        Thanks for the clarification Sean.

        I had a chance to look through Tom Holland’s book in the shop. From what I saw, he seems to understand Paul as proposing a ‘Sonderweg’ theology of salvation; the Jews are saved through adherence to the Law; the Gentiles through adherence to the Stoic ethics of natural law under a rational ‘logos’. For Tom Holland, the Stoics are essentially egalitarian; as is the application of reason as a ground for ethical action – and so the principle of rationality properly continues within Christianity.

        Which indeed is a long way from Larry Siedentop’s construction of Paul’s teaching (granted that his presentation may rest on an odd notion). Siedentop sees the Stoic life of renunciation as every bit as elitist as the aristocratic over-consumption that the Stoics criticised – and not in the least egalitarian. For the Stoics, all persons actions should conform to their place in the natural order; but that ‘natural’ order presupposes different social roles for slaves, women and children, and the Stoics did not support a subversion of it.

        Whereas Siedentop does see Paul (and Augustine and the Francisicans, as I read him) as genuinely subversive of the social orders of their respective days. Siedentop sees Paul as proposing only one new life ‘in Christ’ for both Jew and Gentile; which I still understand him proposing as one where, through the action of God’s grace, all individual motivations without distinction, may potentially be fused with the divine will A divine will not bound by human rationality or the earthly natural order. I get the impression that Tom Holland does not find non-rational principles very congenial.

  2. A similar book I’ve recently read and highly recommend: Christianity and Freedom: Volume 1: Historical Perspectives (Cambridge 2016).

  3. samtsang98 permalink

    Ideally, yes! One word however destroys that argument: slavery.

    • Not really. Sure, there were Christian slaveholders. But the movement to abolish slavery was led by . . . . devout Christians and on the basis of their Christian values. But more to the point, Holland’s argument isn’t that Christians and Christianity consistently lived by the values that they professed, but that the values shaped by Christianity have shaped our values.

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