Christendom, the coughing ghost

Christendom, the coughing ghost

“Christendom,” says Mark Sayers, “is like Hamlet’s ghost; it may be dead, but it still acts in the play.”

That line could form a summary of the book I’m reading during this time of global tumult: Dominion, by the British historian Tom Holland.

Dominion

The subtitle is “How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.” And the work represents a shift from Holland’s early scholarship. Having written histories of Julius Caesar (Rubicon) and the Persian empire (Persian Fire), Holland once claimed a fairly negative view of Christianity.

He remains an atheist.

But he eventually arrived at an unsettling conclusion: The values he held most deeply were the product of a faith he could not hold. To quote Sayers again, the secular project is itself an attempt to have the Kingdom (values, or at least some of them) without the King.

Dominion is Holland’s long attempt to trace how that happened.

The dust jacket tells the thesis:

Christianity is the principal reason why, today, we think it nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering; why we assume every human life to be of equal value.

From Babylon to the Beatles, Moses to #MeToo, Dominion tells the story of how Christianity transformed the world.

GHOSTS ON VENTILATORS

Meanwhile, down in Texas…

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick stuck his cowboy boots in his mouth last week when he seemed to suggest that America should value the economy over the potential death-toll on the elderly by COVID-19.

“Let’s get back to work,” Patrick proclaimed, “let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.”

After a media firestorm, Patrick sought to “clarify” his comments by adding the “at some point” qualifier–a move that is about as bold and specific as suggesting that “at some point” we should restock our national supply of toilet paper.

It’s easy to make political hay of such soundbites. I’ll let others do that.

My goal is merely to relate Patrick’s original faux pas, and the related ones of many others, to Holland’s Dominion.

ECONOMIC PAGANISM

Holland’s claim is that we now call callous and barbaric viewpoints are actually the more common ones in world history: a lack of concern for the weak, the sick, the poor, the old, and those with disabilities.

The very need for the Lt. Governor to “clarify” his comment signals something strange in world history.

Holland writes this of the ancient Greeks and Romans:

It was not just the extremes of callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value.

Why did I find this disturbing?

Because, in my morals and ethics, I was not a Spartan or a Roman at all. That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I had ceased to be Christian [in terms of ethics].

Of course, Holland is focusing on only one set of Christian values—an error that is common amongst both liberals and conservatives. Yet the atheist historian and the Lt. Governor bring us to a final, unsettling question:

What if the ghost of Christendom is getting “sick”—not just in the secular cities of New York, London, and Los Angeles, but in the Bible belt as well?

“Christendom” is not the same as “Christianity.” The former has more to do with cultural power and privilege. The latter is about worship, service, and mission.

Still, the former is not unimportant–and especially for the way our culture treats the least of these (the elderly, the poor, the unborn).

This is what it sounds like when Hamlet’s aging ghost begins to cough.

 


Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Want to support this blog? Here are some other things I’ve written:

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

Is moral relativism still a thing?

Is moral relativism still a thing?

In years gone by, many of us grew accustomed to the warnings from Christian leaders that “The relativists are coming!”

Yet in recent days, voices on both sides of the conservative-liberal spectrum have announced that such a shift has not in fact occurred.

From the left-leaning archives of The Atlantic, we read of

  • “The Death of Moral Relativism” by Jonathan Merritt (here).

And from the uber-conservative bastion of The Blaze, there is

  • “The Quiet Collapse of Moral Relativism” by Joel Kurtinitis (here).

MORAL RELATIVISM

Of course, it should be obvious that such relativism remains an option on the philosophical buffet line.

It goes great with Nietzsche and a side of Foucault.

Nihilism tastes like chicken.

For instance, some evolutionary biologists would tell us that virtually all acts considered “immoral” amongst humans are part of the natural repertoire of animal behavior—things like deception, bullying, theft, rape, murder, infanticide, and warfare. And if such acts are not objectively immoral for the chimp or the hyena, then they are not objectively immoral for the human animal either.

Or so the argument goes.[1]

Christians disagree with this conclusion, but it does not change the fact that moral relativism is still a “thing” within the land of arcane argument.

A SHIFT IN POP CULTURE

But the articles above are concerned with culture at large.

As David Brooks recently argued in the New York Times:

while American colleges campuses were “awash in moral relativism” as late as the 1980s, a “shame culture” has now taken its place. The subjective morality of yesterday has been replaced by an ethical code that, if violated, results in unmerciful moral crusades on social media. A culture of shame cannot be a culture of total relativism (cited in Merritt, The Atlantic).

As should be obvious, this new code is hardly the same as the old one.

This is not a mere return to Mayberry.

As Brooks says, “Talk of good and bad has to defer to talk about respect and recognition.” And as Merritt notes, new absolutes are more likely to be “values of tolerance and inclusion.”

Yet that is still a far cry from moral relativism.

Lada Gaga is not Kurt Cobain.

From the conservative corner of The Blaze, Joel Kurtinitis says basically the same:

The demise of relativism and the rise of the SJW (“social justice warrior”) movement exposes the culture war for what it has been all along—a battle of faiths.

MY TAKE

Personally, I have my doubts as to whether hardcore relativism was ever as widespread in American culture as the articles imply.

The everyman has never been the Übermensch.

Likewise, it should be said that the mere affirmation of an objective code is not necessarily a good thing.

Zealots are not preferable to agnostics (see here).

The question, then, is not absolutes versus relativism, but rather: “Whose morality?”

Despite such caveats, it is nice to hear anyone calling “alternative facts” precisely what they are: falsehoods.

Moral truths exist, and certain things are objectively wrong.

Nonetheless, the real test of a robust worldview will be its ability to provide some answer also to the follow-up question:

“Why?”

 

 


 

[1] See, for instance, the discussion in Daryl Domning, Original Selfishness: Original Sin and Evil in the Light of Evolution (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).