I’m in Washington D.C., where I just now gave my first “book talk,” a reading from part of my new book The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, at the wonderful bookstore, “Politics and Prose.” The book is officially published on Tuesday! And for those interested, this is how I begin the Preface, on a personal note before getting to the matter at hand.
In my junior year of college I took a course in English literature that made me understand for the first time how painful it can be to question your faith. The course introduced me to poets of the nineteenth century who were struggling with religion. Even though I was a deeply committed Christian at the time, I became obsessed with the work of the great Victorian poet of doubt, Matthew Arnold. Nowhere is Arnold’s struggle expressed more succinctly and movingly than in that most famous of nineteenth-century poems, Dover Beach. The poem recalls a brief moment from Arnold’s honeymoon in 1851. While standing by an open window, overlooking the cliffs of Dover, Arnold takes in the shoreline below, mesmerized by the sights and sounds of the sea as the tide goes out.
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; — on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
He asks his bride to join him at the window to enjoy the sweet night-air, and to look down where the waves break upon the beach:
Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin.
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring,
The eternal note of sadness in.
This is the sound, he notes, that Sophocles described many centuries before — in his play Antigone — a sound that made the Greek dramatist think of the “turbid ebb and flow/of human misery.” The sound gives Arnold a thought as well, but one quite different and particularly attuned to his age. For Arnold the retreating sea is a sad metaphor for the Christian faith, ebbing from his world and leaving a naked shoreline in its wake.
There was a time, he wistfully recalls, when the world was comfortably filled to the full with faith:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But that sea too is now retreating, and one can hear the sucking sound as it pulls back from the shore:
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
For Arnold, the modern, educated person no longer has the comforts of religion, the presence of an all-powerful and loving divinity, or the redemption provided by a Son of God who has come into the world to save those who are lost. In the void left by the withdrawal of the Christian faith, all that remains is a confusing and chaotic emptiness, filled only in part by the presence of others, the people we love and cherish who can join us through the uncertainties, pains, and anxieties of life. And so he concludes his poem:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Here is a world of profound and disastrous mayhem and confusion – a struggle of armies fighting to the death, in the dark, with no joy, peace, or certainty. In this void we have only are our friends, companions, and loves: “Ah love, let us be true to one another.”
Dover Beach, and other poems of its era, resonated with me as a young college student because I was beginning to move through my own nineteenth century. In my liberal arts education I had begun learning about the geological and biological sciences, philosophy, critical thinking, and intellectual history — all of which posed problems for my faith, much as they had for the intellectuals of Arnold’s era. And I too found my emerging doubts deeply disturbing..
Now, forty years later, I have a different perspective on these nineteenth-century struggles. Rather than experiencing them personally as a Christian, I look on them as a historian specializing in the study of religion. Even though I myself am no long at sea, I can empathize with those who have been wracked with doubt and uncertainty, forced to reconsider and even abandon their faith, not simply since the rise of modernity but throughout history.
The Christian Revolution
In the first four Christian centuries, the religions of the Roman Empire came under assault by those proposing a new faith, declaring that only the worship of the God of Jesus could be considered true religion. As Christianity spread, it destroyed the other religions in its wake, religions that had been practiced for millennia and that were simply assumed, everywhere and by everyone, to be good and true. But Christians insisted they were evil and false. For those reluctant to accept these claims – or even those unsure of what to belief – this transition was no less agonizing than that of Victorians living centuries later.
The Christian revolution proved far more massive and its triumph far more enduring than the skepticism that emerged as a counter-force in the nineteenth century. Even though many Victorians experienced radical doubt, or left the faith altogether, the Christian tradition did not disappear. There are still two billion Christians in the world. By way of contrast, in antiquity, when Christianity succeeded in taking over the Roman Empire, any pagan religions left in its wake were merely isolated and scattered vestiges of ancient “superstition.”
The ancient triumph of Christianity proved to be the single greatest cultural transformation our world has ever seen. Without it the entire history of Late Antiquity would not have happened as it did. We would never have had the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Renaissance, or modernity as we know it. There could never have been a Matthew Arnold. Or of any of the Victorian poets. Or of any of the other authors of our canon: no Milton, no Shakespeare, no Chaucer. We would have had none of our revered artists: Michelangelo, Leonardo, or Rembrandt. And none of our brilliant composers: Mozart, Handel, or Bach. To be sure, we would have had other Miltons, Michelangelos, and Mozarts in their place, and it is impossible to know whether these would have been better or worse. But they would have been incalculably different.
By conquering the Roman world, and then the entire West, Christianity not only gave rise to a vast and awe-inspiring set of cultural artifacts, it also changed the way people look at the world and choose to live in it. Modern sensitivities, values, and ethics have all been radically affected by the Christian tradition. This is true for almost all who live in the West, whether they claim allegiance to Christianity, to some other religious tradition, or to none at all…..