Matthew Rose First Things Review of Dominion

Nietzsche mocked Europeans for clinging to Christian values once they had drifted from Christian faith. Holland’s response is that Nietzsche was mistaken to distinguish them. To be a Christian is to keep faith with its vision of love and equality, which in the end requires shedding the dead husks of dogma and the Church’s exclusive claim to salvation.

Holland is circumspect about his own faith, quoting Tolkien that the Christian story is perhaps a “true myth.” It is a literary strength of Dominion that it avoids abstract theological discussion. But it does, of course, presume a theological perspective, and in this case a medieval one. In the twelfth century, Abelard argued that Christ saves human beings not by satisfying a debt to God, but by changing our perceptions of him. Abelard’s “moral influence” theory of the atonement, as it came to be known, explained that God redeems humanity by revealing the nature of true love: Salvation means moral ­enlightenment.

One can be a Christian without knowing it, even while insisting otherwise. But the problem is obvious: Almost none of the Christian heroes of his story believed this. In fact, his book suggests that the opposite is true. If these men and women are any indication, the moral influence of Christianity requires radical believers who seek first of all communion with Christ, not ethical-political outcomes.

Recently my family attended an annual St. Martin’s Day festival at a local German preschool. We watched as children staged the story of Martin offering his soldier’s cloak to a beggar in Roman Gaul. The story captures, with dramatic simplicity, a moment of civilizational metamorphosis. A martial ideal of antiquity is transformed by the ideal of Christian charity. As the night grew dark, we sang traditional German songs about the light that we carried in our hearts, in memory of ­Martin’s deeds. No mention was made of ­Martin’s faith or of Christ, who revealed in a vision that it was he who was disguised as the freezing beggar. Martin laid the moral foundations of a Christian culture, yet he knew nothing of the “West” or of “Europe,” terms that would not come into self-conscious use for three centuries. The grand narrative of which he was a part was not about worldly power or individual freedom. St. Martin, like St. Paul, believed that the crucified Christ had risen from the dead, and that the world he saw passing away could be made new only in Christ.

Our modern conceit is that no other age has been so near the culmination of history, and so essential to its redemption. Holland’s book seems to participate in this conceit, imagining that we, unlike St. Paul, see the inner truth of Christianity, which is reformatio. But St. Paul teaches otherwise, as have Christians throughout the centuries. St. Martin gave away his coat in order to draw nearer to what transcends history, not in order to advance its moral progress. And if the Christians in Dominion bear witness to what is true, then a society that embraces an ethic of love but fails to seek its divine source will regress, not progress, for its notions of inclusion, equality, and compassion will be disordered. Instead of serving reform and renewal, they will conceal an unaccountable oligarchy and decadent populace.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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