Recovering a More Complex Story of the Christian West

 
 

Nick Spencer’s recent collection of essays reminds us to appreciate the complex relationship between Christianity and modernity.

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As I was finishing Nick Spencer’s The Evolution of the West, I happened to be in the same room with my mother on a Sunday afternoon. We’ve often exchanged books, so she asked what I was reading, and I showed her the cover, reading the subtitle to her, How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values. “Oh,” she said, “I always assumed that was true—that Christianity shaped how we think.”

Mom is well into her ninth decade now. In her generation, Christianity’s fundamental and positive role in forming the thought and culture of western civilization was obvious to anyone. It no longer is. Spencer, the research director of Theos, a Christian think tank in the UK, has set himself the task of restoring an embattled perspective on western thought, society, and politics. The Evolution of the West, a collection of a dozen essays, can best be understood as a primer—a brief, accessible introduction to a very large subject, which succeeds on its own merit but also encourages the more curious reader to turn next to many more challenging scholarly works on which Spencer relies.

Why Christianity’s role in shaping the West should be in need of vindication is itself an interesting tale. In secularist circles, from the eighteenth-century Roman historian Edward Gibbon to the most recent popularizers of the “New Atheism,” it has long been axiomatic that everything praiseworthy in western societies was achieved by overcoming and displacing the legacy of Christianity. Equality, freedom, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, modern science and its fruits—all of these are viewed as luminous achievements brought about by an escape from the stultifying, superstitious shadows of the Christian religion.

This view does not withstand serious historical scrutiny. Indeed, after reading this book, there are two things one can no longer credit. The first, which Spencer explicitly debunks, is that modernity’s highest achievements owe nothing to Christianity and everything to secularism. The second, the untenability of which he pauses repeatedly to underscore, is that everything that is good about modernity is due to Christianity in some unambiguous or univocal way. The matter is more complicated than that. One might add a third myth that Spencer nowhere mentions, let alone debunks, but one that is worth mentioning because it travels well in some quarters: that the modern is the secular, the secular is the anti-Christian, and . . . we’re doomed, unless we somehow tear up the roots of the modern altogether. That myth, too, does not survive this book.

Spencer begins with a treatment of Larry Siedentop’s truly stunning book Inventing the Individual (which I have reviewed elsewhere), arguing that “the Enlightenment is not the source of our political virtues,” which are “better found in distinctly Christian ideas and their institutional setting (whisper it: the Church).” It was Christian Europe that desacralized political authority, opened up space for civil society, developed a legal system “in which—in theory at least—all people were equal and equally under judgment,” and “raised the idea of conscience” as a central one in religious and political life.

Similarly, it is the Christian “backstory” of Magna Carta—the landmark 1215 charter of liberty under law revered in all English-speaking countries—that makes that event comprehensible. As Spencer reminds us, the Great Charter’s first clause declares the freedom of the Church, and this was not mere episcopal special pleading:

[I]t was the existence of the Church as an independent, self-governing body that forced political rulers to recognize a space that was not under their immediate jurisdiction. The fact that this institution was committed (in theory) to universal and equal dignity for all, and that it also proclaimed a message that the king was under God’s law and judgement, added to this strength.

Laying the groundwork for Magna Carta were such works as John of Salisbury’s Policraticus and Gratian’s Decretum, with their analyses of the problem of tyranny and of the religious ground of the rule of law.

As Spencer subsequently explains in a chapter on the emergence of democracy, Christian thought in the middle ages “legitimized kingship and, in the process, it limited it.” The idea of “kingship under God” meant that rulers were expected to attend to the common good. The legitimacy of limited kingship, accordingly, set up a perennial tension: which principle was to govern public life, the king’s power or the constraints on that power in the name of the people’s freedom and welfare? As the latter principle gained more force over time, democratic reforms—at least in England, where Spencer sets his tale—came to be strongly inflected by Christian impulses, especially after the Protestant Reformation and widespread popular access to the Bible in English.

In two very interesting essays on “humanism” and on human rights, Spencer observes that in the last century, the idea of “human dignity” has become a central concept in western politics. The Christian basis of the idea seems obvious—that human beings are “made in the image of God”—yet “human dignity” has been seized upon by many non-Christian, even anti-Christian “humanists.” The trouble, Spencer argues, is that “the foundational reason behind the Christian humanist commitment to human dignity is not available to atheists.” If human beings are just biologically sophisticated bits of matter in motion—with no God in whose image they are made—then how does one “ground a commitment to human rights”?

Perhaps Spencer too casually disregards human rationality as a ground that believers and non-believers alike could claim for such a commitment (he says it is “largely discarded by theologians today” as the “mark of God’s image,” and I’m not sure that is true), but his discussion of the negotiations that produced the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a sobering reminder of the difficulty here. The Declaration loudly proclaims its basis in human dignity but has nothing at all to say on what that dignity really is, or in what it consists. As Spencer notes, Jacques Maritain, who was involved in the UN discussions, acknowledged the difficulty of an international agreement whose foundation floated free of any moorings: “we agree about the rights,” Maritain recalled someone saying, “but on condition that no one asks us why.” For the Christian, the answer to the question “why human dignity?” is simple: God’s love for the creatures made in His image.

But wait. Isn’t the most distinctive feature of modernity our scientific progress, which has lifted up countless millions and made their human dignity a practical reality? And isn’t modern science the anti-Christian achievement par excellence? Doesn’t everyone know the Church stood in the way of the scientific revolution, and that its grip on the modern mind had to be broken for that revolution to occur?

Not really, says Spencer. These are “Just So stories told round atheist campfires as a way of keeping warm.” The relationship between Christianity and modern science is a complicated one, in which religious belief was more “midwife” than univocal cause of science’s breakthroughs. But relying in part on the work of historians Stephen Gaukroger and Peter Harrison, Spencer argues that modern science emerged out of a Reformation-era shift in western thinking about nature. Nature was no longer conceived in chiefly symbolic terms, with figural and scriptural meaning, but “on its own terms,” as a created order “made by a rational God,” and “therefore intelligible to his rational creatures,” but only in an enterprise attended by the humility that is fitting for fallen creatures, whose understanding could proceed by baby steps, observation by observation, experiment by experiment.

On the evidence of this book, some of it based on his own research (such as an interesting chapter on Darwin’s religious views), Nick Spencer is a man with capacious curiosity, gifted with an ability to survey a broad landscape in both space and time and to see its patterns, its peaks and valleys. Once or twice his ambition seems to outstrip his mastery of his subject. A chapter on Christianity and atheism, for instance, begins well but concludes in an unsatisfying way: Spencer notices that everywhere atheism has cropped up in modern times, it has done so in a traditionally Christian society; hence, he infers, everywhere it was some kind of reaction to such a society. But this does not really explain very much. A more satisfying discussion appears in a later chapter discussing Charles Taylor’s idea of the “secular self” as it has developed in the last five centuries—a “purely immanent humanism” that has left its inhabitants feeling as though the world had been flattened.

Another minor disappointment comes in a chapter enthusiastically embracing the economic diagnoses—and prescriptions—of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which dominated conversations on economics just three years ago but already seems to have receded into the distant past. Spencer evinces no awareness of the widespread and telling criticisms of Piketty’s history, his data, and his proposals. The connection of this chapter to the themes of the book as a whole seems tenuous at best, unless Spencer means to suggest that confiscatory taxation and a policy war on the free market are somehow the naturally Christian response to the putative problem of inequality. But this is a case he does not explicitly make.

Much more interesting is the concluding chapter, in which Spencer provides a kind of theologico-political sociology of various countries’ different approaches to constructing the modern welfare state. Even here, however, a reader might wish for more explanation of which model—the Catholic, the Lutheran, the Calvinist—seems the most successful materially, fiscally, morally, and spiritually.

Notwithstanding the unevenness observed above, The Evolution of the West is a thoughtful and provocative work. If it sets its readers off to read Siedentop, Gaukroger, Harrison, and Taylor—as well as Nicholas Wolterstorff, Samuel Moyn, Brian Tierney, and other works by Spencer himself and his Theos colleagues—then it will have served a valuable purpose as a kind of syllabus for further exploration of the complex legacy of Christian faith in our wounded but still vibrant civilization.

Matthew J. Franck is the director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.

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