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Is Britain sawing off the branch?

Si Walker, 10th January 2020

A man sawing a branch off a tree

The old saying goes, ‘don’t saw off the branch you are sitting on.’

Tom Holland is a historian who is deeply sympathetic to Christian things, but he would not describe himself as being a Christian. He has fond memories of going to church with his Godmother who was deeply influential in his early life and a keen church goer. But in terms of current experience, he is not in the place of having signed- up Christian faith. And yet, Holland is deeply concerned about the trajectory that Britain is on in doing it’s very best to diminish the influence of Christianity in public life. Failing to see that what we have- in terms of valuing life, protecting the weak, and investment in all people- is a deeply Christian mindset.

'Holland has studied other ancient cultures'
A man sawing a branch off a tree

TOM HOLLAND is an award winning historian, author and broadcaster, says the dust jacket of his book Dominion.

You see Holland has studied other ancient cultures and he compares the Roman and Greek ancient civilisations with the values we have in the west in his book, Dominion: The Making of the Western mind. Speaking of these empires he says: ‘It was not just the extremes of callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor and weak might have the slightest intrinsic value…Assumptions that I had grown up with- about how a society should be properly organised, and the principles that it should uphold- were not bred of classical antiquity….’

You see Britain has been radically shaped not just by Christian moral values, but by the gospel of Jesus, so that we now think in a way that has its origins in those things. Even the way humanism has sought to say we must move on from God, is framed in very Christian ways, talking about the intrinsic value of every human life and the potential for good in everyone. Even ideas of being awakened or ‘woke’ to the evils around us sound very like conversion experience when they come so zealously. Assuming some people are blind to the truth but need to see! Some more restrictive twenty- first century societies would take that as an insult and ban such dialogue.

These are all deeply Christian things! The Roman empire, basically worked to establish the rights of every powerful person to have sex with whoever they liked whenever they liked. Welcome to Hollywood auditions, as an example of how things are returning to these days. Holland writes: ‘Only the titanic efforts of Christian moralists, the labour of a millennium and more, had managed to recalibrate this.’ Abstinence and restraint was the Christian message. Holland goes on: ‘Implicit in #MeToo was the same call to sexual continence that had reverberated throughout the Church’s history.’ But now that voice is being challenged.

You can say that we would have arrived at these values without Christianity, but I think it would be rather like saying that BREXIT would have happened without a referendum. It would be blind to the fact that we are shaped by social- historical factors.

A man sawing a branch off a tree

Julius Caeser, known as the 'divine julius' after being formally deified

'radically shaped not just by Christian moral values, but by the gospel of Jesus'

The point is to say, I personally think the evidence is most overwhelming in favour of a reading of British history that has Christianity as the overriding force. And it is not to say Christians or the Church at large is without blemish. Far from it! But Christianity is the huge shaping force:

‘Even in Europe- a continent with churches far emptier than those of the United States- the trace elements of Christianity continued to infuse people’s morals and presumptions so utterly that many failed even to detect their presence.’

But perhaps the most remarkable thing, is that Holland is making these observations, rather than someone like myself, who is a paid up Christian.

So, if this is the case, do we really want to keep on sawing through the branch we are sitting on?