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Charles Cameron, In Memoriam

Friday, September 11th, 2020

[Mark Safranski / zen ]

Charles Cameron, 2012

Charles Cameron – author, comparative religious scholar, poet, citizen of the world

I regret to inform readers of Zenpundit.com and especially those here who are fans of Charles, that he has passed away after years of struggling with health issues. In Charles Cameron, the world has lost a brilliant voice and is much the poorer for it.

Charles and I met through Critt Jarvis, at the time Thomas P.M. Barnett’s webmaster, who was putting together a start up project with the late angel investor Dave Davison. Critt’s app idea required content for demonstration purposes and Charles and were to help with that but Charles also brought to the table his experience with cognitive design at Hipbone Games. Our project never came to fruition – though some of Charles’ theories on gaming much later became part of Sembl – but we remained in touch. Charles had a versatile wealth of knowledge on esoteric subjects that was both inexhaustible as it was infectious. Soon Charles was guest-posting at ZP; then he joined as a co-blogger here and finally when my work and family commitments forced me to blog less and less, Charles became the managing editor, recruiting guest-posters, helping run blogging roundtables and evolving into the primary author in recent years.

He described his main interest as “forensic theology”, Charles had studied under the Reverend A.E. Harvey at Oxford and he had a deep knowledge of Christian liturgical traditions but that was merely the starting point. What Charles really had a unique grasp of was the underlying psychological and spiritual connections or similarities within and between different religious traditions. This was knowledge that came not just but from books but also firsthand experience and from a variety of mentors.

Trevor Huddleston, CR

There was Father Trevor Huddleston, monk, Anglican priest, human rights advocate and Archbishop of the Province of the Indian Ocean who tutored Charles as a boy on monastic principles and was paternal figure. At Oxford, Charles befriended Tibetan lama, Trungpa Rimpochemoved to India where he spent years as an early follower of Guru  Maharaj Ji

Chögyam Trungpa Rimpoche Charles Cameron and three others in India circa 1975

Moving to America, Charles turned initially to poetry and became part of the extended social circle of the Beatniks and studied Jungian psychology, Sufism and Zen traditions. He then struck up a remarkable partnership with Lakota Shaman Wallace Black Elk and the two taught classes on the Lakota sweat lodge ceremonial practices

Wallace Black Elk

Charles was fascinated by juxtapositions and analogies, especially in things spiritual or between the sacred and the profane. His Double-Quotes technique was meant to allow readers to “see” these insights by visual and textual combinations. Charles’ intellectual comfort with dualities, polarities and ambiguities made him a rare analyst, being the first to decode the secret meanings behind the terrorist Major Nidal Hasan’s infamous slideshow. Charles understood religious drivers in political violence and was critical of experts who seemingly ignored them – he could discuss at length the Phineas Priesthood, ultra-Orthodox supremacists, crypto-Mahdists, Dominionist zealots and “ordinary” jihadists with equal enthusiasm and offer their points of common reference before regaling you with some Sufi poetry or Zen koans.

From Charles Cameron I learned many things of which I might never otherwise have known and I believe many of his friends felt the same way. I’ll miss him.

RIP

The A Yeoman Farmer Series Part II.

Tuesday, September 1st, 2020

[Mark Safranski/ zen]

I am stirring from blogging retirement to bring you a series culled from a historical-political essay by a scholar who is a very long time reader of ZP who wrote this post over a long period of time following the last presidential election. He writes under the pseudonym “A Yeoman Farmer” and his foil is the famous “Flight 93 Election” essay of “Publius Decius Mus” in The Claremont Review of BooksI will be breaking the essay into parts and turning the footnotes into section endnotes with each post and linking to the previous sections that have been posted. This post comprises Part II of the series.

The Reichstag is always burning: a commentary on The Flight 93 Election

By: A Yeoman Farmer

Part I can be found here

[continued]

4. Not to pick (too much) on Kesler, who is less unwarrantedly optimistic than most conservatives. And who, at least, poses the right question: Trump or Hillary? Though his answer—“even if [Trump] had chosen his policies at random, they would be sounder than Hillary’s”—is unwarrantedly ungenerous. The truth is that Trump articulated, if incompletely and inconsistently, the right stances on the right issues—immigration, trade, and war—right from the beginning.

The author suggests that Charles Kesler understands this choice and although he does not openly declare for Trump, he accepts that his policies would be sounder than Hillary’s. What is curious is how Kesler knows that Trump will be sounder given that he has no experience and presents quixotic opinions about America, what the Federal Government can do, as well as what is best for America. Moreover, neither the author nor Kesler appear to provide any basis for determining why Trump would be sounder than Clinton on policy choices except that Trump is not Clinton. Although the author gently chides Kesler for being “unwarrantedly ungenerous”, that does not mean that he disagrees, only that it is not warranted in being ungenerous. However, the author does not examine Kesler’s claim, which is a good example of political rhetoric because it sounds good and satisfies most listeners, especially those already pre-disposed to oppose Clinton and to promote Trump as a viable alternative by saying he (possibly any candidate) cannot be as bad as Clinton. By his failure to examine the evidence for Kesler’s statement, or to consider their policies, the author does a disservice. What is surprising is that if this is the level of analysis for how one studies statesmanship, that is it is about political rhetoric to flatter an audience so as to confirm one’s prejudices and not provide a standard to judge a statesman, what is the point of studying statesmanship? Trump as a candidate has displayed none of the characteristics traditionally identified with statesman. By contrast, Hillary Clinton has and even if her statesmanship is not of a high quality, she does possess the necessary characteristics of a statesman.

As Kesler does not explain what Trump is sounder about, the author argues that Trump has sounder opinions or policy proposals about immigration, trade, and war. This triumvirate is important for several reasons as they reveal what the author’s intent is. The author will develop them, but it is worth noting that two of them are explicitly about foreign policy and the third, immigration, while mainly about America’s appeal, is also about foreign policy. If we were reaching the EoH, then we would expect that immigration would actually cease for the Hegelian world state, as predicted by Kojeve, would not see a need for immigration or migration since equal recognition and comfortable self-preservation would ensure a universal society. (one notes in passing that the author has no problem with America migration, only the dreaded immigration) The triumvirate is also important for two further reasons. First, as they relate to foreign affairs they are areas where the president possess the least constrained authority. Second, quite curiously considering the rest of the essay, they have very little to do with the domestic realm except for the sense that the domestic realm creates a demand, for immigrant labour, for foreign goods, and for a well ordered republic. Yet, this triumvirate has a dark side.

5. But let us back up. One of the paradoxes—there are so many—of conservative thought over the last decade at least is the unwillingness even to entertain the possibility that America and the West are on a trajectory toward something very bad. On the one hand, conservatives routinely present a litany of ills plaguing the body politic. Illegitimacy. Crime. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. Politically correct McCarthyism. Ever-higher taxes and ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. A disastrously awful educational system that churns out kids who don’t know anything and, at the primary and secondary levels, can’t (or won’t) discipline disruptive punks, and at the higher levels saddles students with six figure debts for the privilege. And so on and drearily on. Like that portion of the mass where the priest asks for your private intentions, fill in any dismal fact about American decline that you want and I’ll stipulate it.

What is surprising for a student who took Charles Kesler’s Cicero course at Claremont, is the claim that conservatives no longer see anything bad happening to the republic or the West. The “Crisis of the West” is practically a Strauss trade mark. Leaving aside that obvious point, the paradox raises some questions. First, who are these conservatives? Are these the ordinary conservatives mentioned at the start or the extra-ordinary conservatives or simply the abnormal ones? If the author is a conservative, then is he included in this litany of ills? If he does, then can he explain his time justifying the Iraq War and the pre-emptive war that has transformed the republic as that would be a clearer threat to the republican ethos than a symptom like Trump or even Clinton’s policy proposals. More to the point, what does victory look like in these wars against “sub-Third World” [sic]? One wonders if he expects a victory as decisive with the defeat of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Fascist Italy. If he is, then he seems unaware of how warfare has changed since the enemy’s centre of gravity does not exist in the same manner that allows decisive defeat as it is not linked to a state. Perhaps what the author is suggesting is a subtle critique to that the dichotomy that created the idea of the Third World is no longer appropriate for there is no difference between America and Russia as there once was during the Cold War.

If we look at his list of ills, which appear to be a sub-category within his concern for trade, immigration, and war, they tell us something about the author’s intent. 

  1. Illegitimacy. 
  2. Crime. 
  3. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. 
  4. Politically correct McCarthyism. 
  5. Ever-higher taxes and 
  6. ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. 
  7. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. 
  8. A disastrously awful educational system that churns out kids who don’t know anything and, at the primary and secondary levels, can’t (or won’t) discipline disruptive punks, and at the higher levels saddles students with six figure debts for the privilege. 

 

Except for the seventh ill, the other seven are focused on the domestic realm and they are not areas where Trump has offered anything new or noteworthy. Moreover, Trump has demonstrated, through his own behaviour and attitude a certain equanimity if not embrace of these issues since he proudly and unapologetically enjoys fornicating. By contrast, Hillary Clinton has worked her whole political life to deal with these issues. She has held elected office to deal with these issues and in that role has proposed and passed legislation to deal with them. Yet, it is her policies which are unsound?

As for his eighth ill, it is almost a cliché. One wonders if the author is an old man shouting at the kids to get off his lawn. Yet, here we are. One of the ills facing America is that the youth of today are rebellious, uneducated, and ill-disciplined.

If we focus on the wars, we return to a question that the author does not want to address. Does he mean only since 2001 to focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or does he mean since 1945? From the context, it appears the issue is with wars fought since 2001 or the greater reach of American foreign policy because of the attack on 11/9. If that is the case, it raises the question of why the author, who was in the Bush administration after 11/9, is now concerned about the inability to “win” these wars. Does he disagree with the response to 11/9? It seems curious that an author who presents the Flight 93 election, which was part of the 11/9 attacks, would dismiss American foreign policy that was a response to the attacks without explaining what alternative he would support or explain what it means to “win”. He seems to find fault with Bush and Obama’s response. Would he have counselled a different response to 11/9? If so, what would he have America do? Shrink from the fight or resort to nuclear weapons to settle whatever the issue? Yet, he was part of the administration that conducted the response to the 11/9 attacks and he did not resign from his post. The other ordinary and extraordinary conservatives who supported the Bush response to 11/9 did not question the war or the strategy. Perhaps, these conservatives are fair weather ones who want to be there when the trumpets sound but shrink away when caskets and injured return.

End Part II.

Footnotes

 4. Trump’s policy proposals can be found here: https://www.politiplatform.com/trump/all  . Clinton’s can be found here: https://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/ 

5. The author seems naively unaware of where the term Third World originates, which is surprising. The first world was capitalist, the second world was the communist bloc and the Third World were the non-aligned developing countries, mainly in Africa, South, and South- East Asia. As such, there cannot be a sub-Third World for a fourth world country would not be able to exist outside the typology he has chosen.

Non-Nuclear vs Nuclear Adversaries: a “game changing” book?

Tuesday, August 25th, 2020

[ by Charles Cameron — a quick one, of strategy & game interest, from WOTR ]
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I thought this paragraph might interest ZP readers, since the book argues for a new concept in conflict between non-nuclear and nuclear adversaries> The para (or should I say, graph) that follows is taken from a review of Paul Avey, Tempting Fate: Why Nonnuclear States Confront Nuclear Opponents by Alexander Landszka in War on the Rocks:

Avey’s argument is straightforward: If the conventional military balance favors a nuclear-armed state to such an extent that it would not need to resort to nuclear weapons to defend itself and its vital interests, the non-nuclear state may challenge or resist it in a militarized dispute. A sort of “Goldilocks rule” is at play here. If the non-nuclear state is conventionally too strong vis-à-vis the nuclear state, then the latter may be tempted to use nuclear strikes to achieve favorable outcomes on the battlefield. The possibility of nuclear weapons use deters the non-nuclear state. If, however, the non-nuclear state is conventionally too weak vis-à-vis the nuclear state, then the former will not be able to initiate a military conflict in the first place. Avey claims that the non-nuclear state’s leaders do not abide by the nuclear taboo while challenging a nuclear-armed adversary. These leaders believe that amoral strategic reasons — and not moral misgivings — will constrain the adversary from launching nuclear weapons. To support his argument, Avey examines Iraq’s confrontational policies toward the United States in the 1990s, Israeli decision-making toward Egypt in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Beijing’s hostility toward the United States in the 1950s, and Soviet-American tensions in the early days of the Cold War.

Afrer posing some questions about Avey’s arguments, the review concludes:

This is yet another sign that Avey has written a very good book. It gives inspiration for fresh theorizing and more empirical scholarship. Notwithstanding my questions about the nuclear revolution and the Israeli-Egyptian case study, Avey wisely hews close to the evidence and never overstates his arguments. Tempting Fate is a must-read for anyone interested in nuclear politics.

Me, I’m going to think about smaller boys taunting big enough bullies that they can get away with it in (British) Public Schools (American “Prep Schools”).. a subject close to my heart.

The A Yeoman Farmer Series Part I. : The Reichstag is always Burning

Tuesday, August 18th, 2020

[Mark Safranski / zen ]

I am stirring from blogging retirement to bring you a series culled from a historical-political essay by a scholar who is a very long time reader of ZP who wrote this post over a long period of time following the last presidential election. He writes under the pseudonym “A Yeoman Farmer” and his foil is the famous “Flight 93 Election” essay of “Publius Decius Mus” in The Claremont Review of Books. I will be breaking the essay into parts and turning the footnotes into section endnotes with each post and linking to the previous sections that have been posted.

The Reichstag is always burning: a commentary on The Flight 93 Election

By: A Yeoman Farmer

The Flight 93 Election

By: Publius Decius Mus

September 5, 2016

On 5 September 2016, a writer under the pseudonym of Publius Decius Mus, wrote a defence of Trump which was also an extended meditation on the American conservative movement. Although not aware of it, the author was engaging in the age old American practice of the jeremiad, the difference, though, was that it was a European jeremiad, not an American one as it addresses the problem but offers no solution. Or, in this case the author offers a solution that is worse than the problem.

The following is an extended commentary on the essay, which hopes to honor the author’s wish to be flayed in the public domain.

  1. 2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Like my title, the author’s was hyperbolic and like his, my title serves a purpose. It is to warn the reader that we cannot always believe the Reichstag is burning, that each election is a democratic Gotterdammerung for the conservative movement if not America, in part because one can find this language in nearly all elections going back to the founding. A cursory reading of J.G.A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment, would show that republics are always unstable, surging with democratic thymos, virtù as well as their corruption, since they seek to maintain a bounded

space within time fully conscious that they may share the fate of their predecessors. Yet, the American Republic is different and it is this difference the author does not acknowledge or simply declares is no longer material which causes us to consider the author’s intent.

The author seems intent on arguing that both choices are bad with one choice worse than the other simply because of what it means for conservatives and by extension America, which seems to invert the normal understanding that what is good for America should be good for conservatives but that seems at a level of nuance beyond the author’s intent.

If we start with the opening sentence, we find an unsettling proposal. If this is the Flight 93 election, then the airplane is America and the pilot is POTUS and the cockpit is the government. The author suggests that America has been hijacked and that would mean that the sitting President was an Al Qaeda terrorist intent on killing the nation that is crashing the plane. Why would we start with that premise? How can a responsible person, let alone a publication like the Claremont Review of Books, publish something as irresponsible as this and still seek to portray itself as sober, serious, and scholarly in its work to understand and promote statesmanship and its study? The author wants his readers to take his writing seriously, yet he starts with a premise that is simply unsustainable and is deeply insulting to the American people. He is suggesting that the President who was twice elected by large majorities and was responsible for the country’s national security and its general wellbeing, for which he and his administration did an honourable job in delivering, is the equivalent of an Al-Qaeda suicide attacker. Are we to understand that this is the level of debate and argument which is now worthy of being promoted and celebrated by the Claremont Review of Books and those who support it? If this is the case, then what evidence does the author have, beyond disagreeing with policy decisions, that the President and his administration are Al-Qadea operatives?

The author does not elaborate on this possibility and moves to exploring the core issue: the choice between Trump and Clinton. 

    2.  Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.

Leaving aside the idea that playing Russian Roulette with a semi-auto is simply guaranteed suicide which begs the question of the comparison since the game is played with the same weapon. You don’t get to choose which weapon you want to use for your turn in Russian Roulette. In any case, the author wants us to know that both candidates are a potential disaster, if not a certain disaster. It has been a long time since we had a election like this one. One could only point to the nearest equivalent, in modern era, of Nixon vs McGovern or, if you are of a certain persuasion, even Nixon vs Kennedy, to see the choice that the country faces. What is clear though is that one of the choices was not a politician who had held an elected office.

Once we understand that the choice is between an experienced politician and an amateur, we must consider the nature of the organisation that published this essay. The Claremont Institute is nominally dedicated to the study of statesmanship, which requires one to have an understanding of what statesmanship means, how to recognize its appearance and absence. In other words, if we are to understand or study statesmanship we have to be able to differentiate between better and worse statesmanship. We would expect this from the essay, so that we could understand what the election means as well as what the candidates represent, but will we find that in this essay? 

 

      3. To ordinary conservative ears, this sounds histrionic. The stakes can’t be that high because they are never that high—except perhaps in the pages of Gibbon. Conservative intellectuals will insist that there has been no “end of history” and that all human outcomes are still possible. They will even—as Charles Kesler does—admit that America is in “crisis.” But how great is the crisis? Can things really be so bad if eight years of Obama can be followed by eight more of Hillary, and yet Constitutionalist conservatives can still reasonably hope for a restoration of our cherished ideals? Cruz in 2024!

Here the author starts to explore the conservative movement’s strange genealogy. He states that there are ordinary conservatives so there must be extraordinary ones or abnormal ones. Who are these extraordinary conservatives, these uber-conservatives who will give us the new conservative values? Who will admit to being the abnormal conservative? Are these the Trump supporters? Will it be such men as Publius Decius Mus, for they alone have the courage to see and speak about what others cannot or will not see or speak about. Moreover, do they have the virtù to make it happen? Strangely, though he invokes Hegel as if this is the moment when history ends, not 1989 but 2016 is the EoH. I wish someone would make up their mind since we were told that it was originally 1805. Perhaps the EoH like treason is a matter of dates. In any case, the author chides those, like the late Harry Jaffa, who believe that all human outcomes remain possible, for there is no tomorrow if Hilary is elected. It would appear that we can expect a 1000 year progressivist Reich to begin with her election, which neither the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, nor the people could resist. Except the American regime is based on the idea that no election ever ends history since the process is that renews America and provides her vitality since its political institutions are based on the idea that elections every two years allow the people in their wisdom to change course by changing their elected representatives. In their choices they are guided by the United States Constitution which acts like a sheet anchor to steady the country’s path.

The challenge, though, according to Charles Kesler and the author is that America is in crisis. For a writer who uses an ancient Roman general as his pseudonym, this claim seems ahistorical. The question to ask is: “When has the Republic *not* been in crisis?” A cursory reflection on republics, as even Publius understood in the Federalist Papers, would indicate that republics are always on the brink of crisis for they are a dynamic entity that thrives on crisis for renewal. Every four years America undergoes a political revolution. How can we say a country is not in crisis when it has a revolution every four years? However, there is something different with this election. There is something that is important. It is the choice between Hilary and Trump. The choice, though, is not a choice in a strict sense, but the author does not notice that or if he noticed it, he chose to overlook it once he has mentioned it.

End Part I.

Footnotes:

 

  1. Mus was inspired by a religious dream. One has to ask whether the person who used him as a pseudonym has similar religious belief. If he had, would he have written this approach that presents an end of the world scenario.
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/books/review/Stephenson-t.html
  3.  A jeremiad is a political sermon designed to criticize those who have fallen away from the path of righteousness. According to Sacvan Bercovitch, there are two kinds of jeremiad, the American and the European. An American jeremiad promises, and is infused with the belief, that future success will occur so long as the audience accepts the necessary reforms. The American jeremiad is optimistic in its promise. By contrast, the European jeremiad is pessimistic in that it does not suggest that reforms will return the righteous to the promised destination. The European jeremiad addresses the problem but offers no final salvation.  Bercovitch, in modifying the work of Perry Miller, differentiates between an American Jeremiad focusing on renewal within the promise and potential of America against the more pessimistic and anxious European Jeremiad. In this typology, Kissinger’s jeremiad would be European because his anxiety over the United States’ future belies a belief in its power to renew itself and the world. Kissinger believed that the Soviet Union would be a permanent problem and that the United States’ could only hope to adapt to its diminished role. He did not see the possibility that the United States could achieve more than the modest goal of reducing tensions with the Soviet Union and stabilizing the international system. For a careful assessment of Miller and for Bercovitch’s variations on Miller, see Francis T. Butt, “The Myth of Perry Miller” The American Historical Review 87, no. 3. (Jun., 1982): 665-694.

 

Book Review: Dominion, by Tom Holland

Sunday, August 2nd, 2020

[ intro only by Charles Cameron — I’m delighted to welcome blog-friend Dr Omar Ali, who here reviews Tom Holland‘s book, Dominion — no, it’s not about Rushdoony-style Dominionism. This review was originally posted in our companion blog, Brownpundits !
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Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World
Tom Holland
Basic Books
ISBN-13: 978-0465093502
$22.97 at Amazon
Brownpundits / Zenpundit Review by Dr Omar Ali

^^

Tom Holland started off writing vampire novels but moved on to non-fiction and has since written an excellent history of the Persian invasion of Greece, several books about the Romans, one about Islam and one about the slow rise of Christian Europe that started around 1000 AD; in retrospect at least, all his non-fiction books have had a hint of Christian Western European apologetics (some of it is probably well deserved reaction to the excesses of contemporary wokeness) but this book makes it explicit. Dominion is well written and well researched and he does make a lot of effort to include the nasty bits of Christian history, but in the end it IS a work of Christian apologetics, albeit from a modern liberal angle. Tom Holland’s basic thesis is that almost the entire set of “humanist” values modern liberals take for granted (universal human equality and dignity, separation of church and state, care for the weaker sections of society, suspicion of power, privilege and wealth, condemnation of slavery, cruelty and oppression, valorization of the weak and downtrodden, etc) is purely Christian in origin. No other civilization or culture had these values (or at least, foregrounded them in quite the same way as Christianity). For example, while some thinkers have always been unhappy with slavery, the abolition of slavery was a Christian effort through and through. True, the slave owners had their own Biblical justification for slavery, but those who opposed them did so on the basis of their Christian beliefs, and they won the argument.

Holland also insists that the most viciously anti-Christian progressive thinkers of the post-enlightenment era also turn out be using Christian values to attack Christianity. When Marx cries out against the oppression of the proletariat or Lennon sings “all you need is love”, they are really being more Christian than most Christians. Since Nietszche thought something similar (that liberalism is “Christianity without Christ”), he gets a lot of positive play in this book, which is a bit ironic, since he also regarded Christianity as something of a disease.

As expected, the book is well written and stylish, sometimes with too much style; I am not picky about such things but some readers may tire of all his little reveals (a new character is discussed without being named for a few lines, giving readers the opportunity to guess who he or she is, then revealed; this is done in practically every chapter). He has done his research and as far as I could tell, there were no glaring errors of fact. But while he is scrupulous about his facts, he is not shy of cherry picking and framing to fit his thesis. Nero is a pagan monster who killed his own wife and mother; Constantine, the first Christian emperor, also viciously killed his wife and son, but that does not reflect badly on Christianity. Terrible and cruel punishments in pagan Rome are a sign of paganism’s shorcomings, but terrible and cruel punishments inflicted by inquisitors and priests (and described in horrifying detail in this book) are not Christian shorcomings (the thought is that eventually Christian Europe gave them up; why they were given up in a time of anti-clerical and even anti-Christian upheaval and not when the Church was at its mightiest, is assigned to Christian values taking 1800 years to make their mark, and then doing so surreptitiously). By the time the book gets to the modern world the thesis really begins to look like one of those Hindutvvadi posts about how everything was invented in India; no matter what any activists themselves may say, Tom Holland knows their beliefs and motivations are entirely Christian. This is probably partly true, but leaves open the question of where Christianity itself comes from. Unless one believes the Son of God thing, the explanation is likely to be that some mix of human nature and human history created Christianity, just at it created every other ideology. So why stop at Paul (or Christ if you prefer)? Everythying in this world seems to be derived from some combination of earlier things, why not Christianity? And why believe that the same results would not have arisen (somewhere, at some point) even if there had never been a Christ or a Paul? Maybe those impulses are also human universals, and can and do arise repeatedly, not just as an episode in the history of Jewish superstition? And of course there is always the possibility that some of this progress is not really progress at all, but a mistake. Especially with the “woke”, it is by no means universally agreed that they are a good thing, so crediting all of their values to Christ may not be a winning move for Christianity.

Anyway, I don’t find his thesis completely wrong; the tension between certain Christian values and various vicious aspects of Christian society is real and those values did lead some Christians to take up the cause of diverse oppressed groups, most spectacularly and successfully, against slavery. Economic explanations of why the British empire not only abolished slavery but expended diplomatic capital, real money and military might to stop the trade of slaves by others, are not sufficient, and are an insult to the memory of countless Quakers and other good Christians who made it their life’s work to fight the good fight and succeeded to the point that no modern society regards slavery as an acceptable institution anymore. But Holland insists that Christianity is the ONLY source of most of our modern liberal notions, which seems a bit of a strech. It is also not a unique claim. In fact, there are books written about how the Jews created modern rights, or Islam did, or for that matter, the Native Americans did; and of course Sufis take TomHollandism to another level, with a secret brotherhood using everyone from Abraham and Moses to Ghazali and Rumi to insert progressive ideas into human culture. But the most glaring omission in this book is the “Eastern Religions”; the entire book start and ends in the Middle East and Western Europe (Eastern Christianity gets no love either) and the ideas of India and China are dismissed practically without examination. Mahavir, Buddha, the authors of the Upanishads, the philosophers and thinkers of China, none find any mention in this book or get any credit for any human advance. On the other hand, the Christian West did have a disproportionate role in creating the modern world (for better and for worse), so he does have a case, but maybe not as strong a case as advertised.

But irrespective of what you think of his basic thesis, the book is still a great read. Tom Holland writes well, reads widely and has an eye for fascinating anecdotes that every reader can enjoy even if he or she does not agree with the underlying thesis. In fact, if you do NOT agree with this thesis you should especially read the book to see how well your preferred theory stands up against a well written Christian version. If he is wrong, why is he wrong? Trying to answer that question should be a fruitful exercise for anyone. Well worth reading.

QUOTES

“It is the audacity of it—the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe—that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilization to which it gave birth. Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North America, in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross.”

“In a city famed for its wealth, Paul proclaimed that it was the ‘low and despised in the world, mere nothings, who ranked first. Among a people who had always celebrated the agon, the contest to be the best, he announced that God had chosen the foolish to shame the wise, and the weak to shame the strong. In a world that took for granted the hierarchy of human chattels and their owners, he insisted that the distinctions between slave and free, now that Christ himself had suffered the death of a slave, were of no more account than those between Greek and Jew.”


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