Nietzsche Was Right

Tom Holland has written a book that is not so much a history of Christianity, but a history of the complex role Christianity played in the formation of modern Western culture. He rightly calls that influence “paradoxical” because, first, the Christian church has often spectacularly failed of its ideals, and other times it has been disastrously divided over what those ideals actually were. Holland—an award-winning historian of the ancient world, a translator of Greek classical texts, and a documentary writer—gives us all the gory details. He is no apologist for the church, despite his considerable respect for certain aspects of the Christian faith.

But the bottom line is this—it is hard to overstate the importance of Holland’s book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. The subtitle tells you the basic thesis. He makes a readable and extraordinarily well-documented case that the central values and priorities of modern, Western, secular culture have actually come from Christianity. And even now, when most of the educated classes have abandoned Christianity and when religion is in sharp decline among the populace, Christianity has such an enduring, pervasive influence that we cannot condemn the church for its failures without invoking Christian teaching and beliefs to do so.

The bottom line is this—it is hard to overstate the importance of Tom Holland’s book.

Only Way to Live
Holland offers a long but accessible exposition of a basic idea first proclaimed by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Nietzsche saw the European intelligentsia rejecting Christianity and styling themselves as scientific freethinkers, supposedly living without God. But, he argued, they still believed in human rights, in the equal dignity of every person, in the value of the poor and weak, and the necessity of caring and advocating for them all. They still believed that love is the great value and that we should forgive our opponents. They still believed in moral absolutes—that some things are good and some things are evil—and particularly that oppression of the powerless was wrong.

But, Nietzsche argued, all these ideas were unique to Christianity. They did not develop in Eastern cultures, and the Greeks and the Romans found them laughable and incomprehensible when they first heard them. Holland shows that the shame-and-honor cultures of old, pagan Europe—of the Anglo-Saxons, the Franks, and the Germans—thought that the Christian ethic of forgiving one’s enemies and of honoring the poor and weak to be completely unworkable as a basis for society. These ideas would’ve never occurred to anyone unless they held to a universe with a single, personal God who created all beings in his image, and with a Savior who came and died in sacrificial love. The ideas only could’ve grown from such a worldview—they don’t make sense in a different one. If, instead, we believe we’re here by accident through a process of survival of the fittest, then there can be no moral absolutes, and life must be, if anything, about power and the mastery of others, not about love. That, declared Nietzsche, is the only way to live once you are truly willing to admit that the Christian God does not exist.

When Nietzsche made this argument he was dismissed as a madman. The liberal, secular world continued to spin out the narrative that only when we moved away from the dominance of the church—and put its superstition and bigotry behind us—was the modern world able to end slavery, discover human rights, empirical science, and sexual freedom.

But over the last 50 years, slowly but surely, leading academics have been proving Nietzsche right.

Only at the very end, and then only briefly, does Holland pose a question that hangs over the entire book. If it’s true that these humanistic values originated out of Christian beliefs, will not these values make less and less sense—become less and less compelling—in a society that’s abandoning the beliefs? Holland puts it like this:

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 the shadow of a corpse? What are the foundations of its morality, if not a myth? (540)

Holland leaves the question hanging. This is not asking if individual secular people can be highly moral and unselfishly committed to others. Of course they can. It is asking whether, on the whole, an entire society can stay committed to values after abandoning the beliefs about the world on which the values were based.

Tim Keller

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

%d bloggers like this: